That July, it felt like everyone in Portland got the calls. It was often a parent, sometimes a friend, checking in. No one has a transcript, of course. But the exchanges became a common point of reference.

The basic question: “Is Portland OK? Are you OK?”

The answer (in spirit, if not exactly these words): “Well, of course. Yes.”

The summer of 2020 brought challenges to us all, across the country. We tried to decode the pandemic’s surges, ebbs and peculiar social codes. The presidential campaign staggered on. And across the nation, the Black Lives Matter protests surged after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis cast everyday oppression into sharp relief.

Throughout the summer and into the fall, late-night clashes between police and lingering protestors were regular evening news events. | Kathryn Elsesser/AFP via Getty Images

In Portland, in the weeks after Floyd, after Breonna Taylor, the streets filled with diverse, overwhelmingly peaceful crowds. People of color and longtime activists stood at the forefront. But that moment’s particular flavor definitely reflected Portland’s history as one of America’s whitest big cities — about 75 percent white, in current census numbers. We have our own specific history of racism and discrimination. And, also, a widely held obliviousness. Those huge spring crowds included a lot of white people, like my own family, unaccustomed to questioning their own place in the scheme of American power.

Spring wasn’t simple. Police used stun grenades and tear gas; arson and vandalism incidents diverted attention from the larger phenomenon. But — especially after months of the pandemic — that season also bore a feeling of awakening: a city snapping back to consciousness and starting an awkward, necessary reckoning.

Outside of three or so blocks, life went on as – well, whatever passed for normal in 2020.

By July, though, the tone shifted. The protests remained large, with a broad base and, of course, a sense of urgency. But after more than a month of daily protests, the most intense activity began to orbit a small area of downtown, centered on the Justice Center, a high-rise of courts and law enforcement facilities, and on the nearby federal courthouse. This bland swatch of government buildings is usually an afterthought to locals — the opposite of the boutique-filled, character-rich neighborhoods Portland loves. But from the beginning of the month, it was center stage, as protesters and law enforcement faced off: fireworks thrown at the Multnomah County Justice Center, riots declared, arrests on federal charges.

Was Portland OK? Were we OK? You could understand the questions. The turmoil put Portland in a national glare. As the month wore on, federal officers used evermore aggressive tactics around the justice center. By the middle of the month, agents made seemingly random arrests in the protest zone, shoving people into unmarked vans, holding them without charge, a brief but chilling moment. Meanwhile, the president of the United States tweeted: “We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it. Their leadership has … lost control of the anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE. These were not merely protesters, these are the real deal!”

Anarchists, agitators, law enforcement under siege — this was now the story. In September, then-Attorney General Bill Barr included Portland on a list of “anarchist jurisdictions” threatened with federal budget cuts. Fox News, in particular, put Portland at the center of a summerlong narrative of urban disorder, amplifying tales of “hardcore rioters” and the like. Through the national lens, Portland in July 2020 looked like a city on fire.  

Surreal enough, all of it. And yet for me, and I believe I am not alone, talking about the unfolding agitation added yet more layers of strangeness. 

The truth was, whatever TV showed, most of the city was basically calm. Especially in privileged neighborhoods like mine, tucked on the other side of the Willamette River, the justice center scene could be out of sight, out of mind. (Smaller protests continued in the outer-lying neighborhoods through the summer.) 

I did know some people who turned out to voice opposition to the federal show of force. Some of those summer nights downtown saw a “Wall of Moms” or a “Wall of Dads,” aiming to get between cops and protesters — very Portland responses to the situation. Black Lives Matter and the host of issues foregrounded that summer certainly stayed top of mind and conversation.

But at the same time, I fell into a strange tendency to downplay downtown — to emphasize that we were fine. The city was not “on fire.” Outside of three or so blocks, life went on as — well, whatever passed for normal in 2020. People worked on their yards, took many walks, tried to craft pandemic-safe summer plans. In a 137-square-mile city of 600,000 people, almost all of us caught the “anarchy” on a screen, like everyone else.

The portrayal of a fiery land of anarchists and agitators simply stood at mind-bending contrast with the city as I know it. Portland does have a long history of protest and radicalism. (Colorful and confrontational protests against the Gulf War — the early ’90s installment — famously earned the city the nickname “Little Beirut,” now an old mainstay of local jargon.) That spring and summer carried a fierce charge, widely felt, and its expression varied wildly from person to person and protest to protest.

All the same, we’re a tea-drinking town. We have nine months of cardigan weather. Asked to point the way to a landmark tourist attraction, a Portlander will often proudly cite a bookstore — Powell’s City of Books, no less. In fact, despite its election-night blue ocean, Portland can feel very conservative. Especially in the older core neighborhoods that range along the Willamette, the most coveted lifestyle seems cut from a 19th-century cloth. Portlanders walk to the coffee shop, shelter from the gloom in corner pubs. We grow roses, so much so that we’ve earned another nickname, “City of Roses.” Radical? In many local lives, Portland swings toward the twee, cozy and mellow.

For all its problems, Portland harbors abiding strengths, including a culture of strong community ties and a flourishing arts scene. | Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

We idealize individuality. It’s no coincidence that the city’s most famous company, Nike, began as a runner’s brand in the 1970s, when no one in mainstream America ran. For decades, a reverence for small-scale craft has welded together a distinctive Portland hybrid of culture, lifestyle and business. As Amazon rewired Seattle’s DNA and San Francisco sprouted high-rise tech HQs, Portland’s calling-card brands ran more to Stumptown Coffee, Blue Star Donuts and Dave’s Killer Bread. In honest moments, a Portlander of the 2010s could admit that “Portlandia,” the cable-comedy sendup of indie earnestness, actually had something: Portland likes seeing itself as a city where a bohemian version of the good life thrives.

Our distinctive Western story comes into play here. Gold-rush seekers and would-be magnates turned north or south when they hit the coast. Our coastal sister cities ended up with much more polish, not to mention money. The inland Western cities seem so bumptious and ambitious by comparison, with their energy booms and sagebrush suburbs. Oregon — settled by farmers seeking deep topsoil, built up by dynastic timber companies — developed a circumspect, moss-backed personality. (One of few somewhat famous quotes about Oregon comes from H.L. Mencken: “Oregon is seldom heard of. … It has no poets or statesmen.”)

Portland emerged into the 21st century holding on to that quietude. Lifestyle-minded migrants flocked from the East but from Boise and Albuquerque, too, looking for self-reinvention amid natural splendor. For many transplants (like me), Portland seemed like a big city, but only sort of: not a place of major events — not somewhere things happen. Certainly not a place out to shake the nation.  

This downtown thing — it just didn’t feel like Portland. We were, as noted, fine.

Looking back, though, that was just too comfortable and easy. We were fine, sure. The worst of it touched a tiny part of the city. But Portland as a whole is not entirely fine. The protest crisis reflected (and fed) a broader, deeper unease about the city’s direction.

For a long time — say, the 1990s through 2010s — self-satisfaction ran high around here. Our neighborhoods thrived. We adopted a suite of progressive policies around urbanism and climate. National media celebrated our urban and cultural successes. But there was always a dark side to Portland’s success, likewise rooted in that frontier past. Oregon’s first settlers coded racism into the territory’s laws, attempting to ban all Black settlement. Wars with Native people and treaties favoring white settlers seized control of the landscape. These old tragedies set patterns that mutated but persisted. Even in Portland’s 21st-century salad days, with laudatory New York Times features landing thick and fast, working-class people found themselves pushed to the margins economically. The halls of local power remained overwhelmingly white.

And in the last half decade, problems arose that seemed beyond Portland’s scope. Homelessness, notably, proliferated, tent encampments and rusted RVs filling parks, freeway underpasses and side roads. This humanitarian disaster shows no sign of improving. This highly visible, demoralizing prospect stacks atop subtler and longer-running stories about gentrification, sliding public education and economic inequity — familiar stories elsewhere, but with their own ache in a place that calls itself (wielding yet another sobriquet) “The City That Works.” The protests and our moment of national infamy added to a vague but growing unease about the city. 

Meanwhile, though, those shallow “anarchist jurisdiction” hot takes missed something equally important. For its problems, real enough, Portland harbors abiding strengths. Our inventive side, the reigning interest in artisanship, can be easy to mock. But it’s real. And over roughly the same arc of time that held the pandemic and the protests, Portland’s instincts for self-reinvention and creation came into play, too.

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The city, along with Oregon and the rest of the nation, is becoming more diverse, and civic identity is slowly — slowly, but noticeably — evolving. The default idea of a Portland person, place or thing grows less fixed, more fluid. The food scene vibrates with Indonesian-Chinese, Chamorro and avant-Mexican influences. A music world long defined by earnest white rockers now fosters electrifying, woman-led acts with Latin roots like Savila and Y La Bamba. Even City Hall — traditionally, the demographic equivalent of a very old-guard country club — feels it: As of spring 2022, people of color hold three of our five City Council seats.

In retrospect, both the national and personal storylines of 2020 were too simple. The many months since have, in their way, unfolded in the big spectrum of reality in between those polar myths of wild anarchy and total normalcy. And maybe that is entirely fitting — by origin and history, Portland resists any one identity: part West, part West Coast, a port hinge between the Pacific Rim and the continent beyond. We’re progressive by self-definition and often very square by preference. 

A single true story can be hard to find here, but maybe here’s one: Portland may not be on fire, and it may not be “fine.” It is in the process, long and painful and hopeful, of evolving into its next self. 

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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